Cubs

Trying to create playoff momentum, Cubs handed walk-off loss by Phillies

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Trying to create playoff momentum, Cubs handed walk-off loss by Phillies

PHILADELPHIA – The Cubs dressed quietly inside the visiting clubhouse late Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park. No loud rap music blasting or shaving cream smeared all over the carpet.

It’s a long shot, but the Cubs will get their chance to win the National League Central, with 10 of their final 20 games against the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates.

The computers projected a playoff spot as a lock – 99.8 percent on Baseball Prospectus and 99.9 percent on FanGraphs – and even the most cynical Cubs fan has to like those odds.

But the Cubs wasted an opportunity to gain even more ground here, absorbing a 7-5 walk-off loss to the Philadelphia Phillies when pinch-hitter Cody Asche hammered Hector Rondon’s 95-mph fastball off the right-field foul pole for a two-run homer with two outs in the ninth inning.

“We’re human,” Rondon said. “I try to be the same every time I come into pitch. I have my plan and I think that is the reason I have (good) moments. But some days I don’t have that good luck. They hit it.”

Is Rondon ready for October? He has been so quietly efficient – and done the job without any of the personality quirks you usually see from closers – that it’s easy to overlook how dominant he’s been this year.

[MORE: Kris Bryant keeps delivering in the clutch for Cubs]

Rondon had allowed just two earned runs in his previous 45 games and given up only three homers to the first 252 batters he faced this season. That still doesn’t mean the Cubs have a bullpen built for the playoffs or the brute force to make it a six- or seven-inning game the way the Kansas City Royals did last year.

Looking at an uncertain weather forecast, which ultimately led to a 50-minute rain delay, the Cubs decided to flip-flop, moving Dan Haren’s start back to Sunday afternoon and making Saturday their bullpen night against the worst team in baseball.

Combined, the Cubs got six scoreless innings from Travis Wood and Trevor Cahill before Justin Grimm cracked with two outs in the seventh. All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo made the fielding error that opened the door for five unearned runs. Lefty Zac Rosscup gave up the big hit when Cesar Hernandez lined a three-run double into left-center field.

“I got to do a better job there – I messed up,” Rizzo said. “I maybe took the groundball for granted. It’s a slow chopper. Maybe tried to rush a little bit. It was kind of in an awkward area. But you got to move on.”

The Cubs responded with four runs in the eighth inning to tie the game before Kris Bryant sprinted from third base on a groundball and got tagged out at home plate, knocking over Phillies catcher Erik Kratz and forcing a replay review of the home-plate collision rule.

“I don’t want to get into that, because I get in trouble every time,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But if that’s not blocking the plate, I don’t know what is.”

[NBC SHOP: Buy a Kris Bryant jersey here]

The Cardinals are creating a lane in the division, losing a suspended game plus another game to the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday, making it eight losses in the last 10 games for the best team in baseball.

The Cubs trail the Cardinals by 5.5 games and will get their archrivals next weekend in what should be a huge three-game series at Wrigley Field.

The next stop on this three-city road trip is Pittsburgh, where the Cubs will play the Pirates four times in three days beginning Tuesday afternoon at PNC Park. The Pirates have narrowed the deficit to 2.5 games in the Central and hold a three-game lead over the Cubs in the wild-card race.

“You never know,” pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “That’s the thing. You never know how many games other teams can lose. You never know how many we can win. So we’re just trying to come to the ballpark every day and win. That’s it. Let the other teams take care of their business.

“We just want to get the momentum (and) go into October with that. Obviously, we’d love to get the wild-card game at home. We’d love to catch the Cardinals. But even if we play on the road in that game, it’s not going to matter to us.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.